A Fragile Keepsake

In every conceivable manner, the family is a link to our past, a bridge to our future ~Alex Haley

When I graduated from college thirty years ago in May, my mother presented me with a family heirloom. The opal ring-set in twenty karat gold- was given to her by her mother, who in turn, received from her mother. I became the fourth generation to wear this precious piece.

The ring, for me, is a vehicle for family stories-most especially about my late great-grandmother who received the gift from her husband. She was a native of Genoa,Italy ( a red head no less!) who married a Siscilian and then came to America.  She bore 16 children (two of whom died in World War II) and had two kitchens in her home.  The second was in the third floor attic where she prepared her ravioli and other delectable treats. My mother remembered Sunday dinners at her grandparents house where her grandfather commanded the head of the table and her grandmother stayed in the kitchen waiting for him to order his next course. He would often say, “Old lady get me this.. old lady get me that…”, according to my mother. In fact, my mother told me that her grandmother’s dresses often had black grease marks on the back from leaning against the stove!  She had no memory of her grandmother ever sitting down to eat with the family. So, I guess somewhere along the way he must have expressed his appreciation for her dedication and gave her the ring.

I don’t know when my grandmother received the ring; perhaps it was given to her when her mother died. She was definitely the favored child of  her father so I can only assume that is how she came to have it given the numbers of sisters she had. My grandmother was a feisty, sometimes ill-tempered woman who often got her way. She enjoyed her whiskey and loved to gamble.  In fact, it was during a card game that the ring met its current physical state. My grandmother was having a bad night and was dealt a particularly poor hand. In her frustration, she slammed her hand down, palm side up, chipping a corner of the opal stone. The stone-fragile in nature- could not be reset for risk of shattering it completely.

I believe that my mother was given the ring when she graduated from high school. Or maybe when she married my father; I am not sure. She did not wear it as often as she would have liked for fear of losing the stone.  When it became my turn to have it, I too, wore it sporadically for a while. But then, in my mid-twenties I started wearing it daily. I had heard that the oils from your skin kept the ring from drying out and breaking apart. It was then that the ring story took an unusual turn. One night I took it off so I could exercise before leaving for a vacation with my boyfriend and friends. It was a busy time, packing etc. and in my rush I misplaced the ring. I looked all over my apartment but could not find it. I was quite distraught; so much so that I never told my mother.

Fast forward to a year later. I am on my honeymoon in the British Virgin Islands. We arrive at our seaside cottage and begin unpacking. As I take out the last of the items from my very large suitcase, I hear the sound of something rolling across the floor. It was the ring! Apparently it had been stuck in a corner of the suitcase the entire time. From then on, I wore the ring quite regularly and when I didn’t I was careful to place it so as not to lose it again. I don’t think that I ever told my mother about losing it. I wish that I did; she would have gotten a kick out of that story for sure.

For a lot of my married life, I wore the ring on my right hand. When my marriage was going south, I took off my wedding bands more regularly and place the opal there instead.  Then I stopped wearing my bands completely and put the ring back on my right hand. I suppose this was a way for me to physically accept my single state. When I became seriously involved with my fiance’, I put the ring back on my left ring finger. It was a perfect way to prevent men from pursuing me and a way for me to show my committment to my new relationship.  When I became engaged, the ring was once again resting on my right ring finger.

Today the ring sits on my dresser. Last month, I noticed a new piece had broken off making the already precarious setting even looser. I am quite afraid that it will come off altogether. My hope is that I can find a way to preserve it without shattering the rest of the stone. It is very important to me that I pass it on to a future granddaughter. I want to share the stories of not only the ring but of the women who wore it.

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Upstairs, Downstairs

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The ache for home lives in all of us,
the safe place where we can go
as we are and not be questioned.

– Maya Angelou

This week was a little up ended due to another home renovation project that required me to be out of the house for 3 nights. When polyurethane  staining is done on the floors, evacuation is necessary! I  was lucky enough to stay at my friend Emily’s house right here in town. Emily’s is the place to go when the power goes out (they have a generator) or if you are in need of a good meal. She and her husband are outrageous cooks and one is guaranteed to eat something that is always unique and delicious.

Although we live just minutes from each other, her neighborhood is somewhat different from mine. She lives in the town’s center with lots of sidewalks, the town green (complete with bandstand) and with shops-including Starbucks- within walking distance. The houses, like mine, are older. But unlike mine,  they are closer together.  Her home is warm and welcoming and a reflection of her family. In fact, as a guest, you immediately find yourself immersed in the comfort of their abode.  I was blessed with a space of my own, a comfortable pullout couch (seriously!) and a full bath in the basement.

For those of you who follow me, you may remember my reflection on home renovations from August (Renovation, Reclamation, Rebirth), where I talked of the significance of my first independent home improvement project.  (And if you haven’t read it, check it out! It may help you understand this particular musing!)  Anyway, this recent project involved more than just staining hardwood floors.  My staircase leading to the second floor of my home was finally repaired, redone and realigned after a decade of being incomplete.

Like many projects, my former husband began the renovation with excitement and enthusiasm only to quickly lose interest to other repairs or distractions that seemed more exciting. His lack of commitment to the project became a metaphor for the deterioration of our relationship.  For years, the stairs became the reason I was ashamed to have people over to the house and I even hesitated to open the front door because I was so embarrassed by its appearance. For the first part of their childhood, the boys always hung their Christmas stockings from the ballisters. But when the area under went its destruction, we could no longer uphold that tradition. Instead, they laid them on the open stairs and every Christmas Eve I hoped that the goodies wouldn’t fall through the open parts and be lost.

Until very recently, I did not have the financial means to undertake such an extensive repair. But I am blessed to have a contractor who not only understands my situation but has the respect and professional ethics to get the job done. He knows that the repair was not only a safety issue but a spiritual and healing one as well. To say that he attended to every detail would be an understatement.  When problems arose (as they always do with home repair), he called in a finish carpenter to help. He also discovered that all the bedroom door frames were askew and that the beautiful red oak wood was cracked and dried out from years of not being finished. As the project got underway, each day became a celebration for the three of us as we watched the heart of our home become more whole.

For years I was envious of other people’s homes. As time went on, it became clearer and clearer to me that the attention to their houses was an example of stability, security and a sense of “home” for their families. They had pride of place. It was a promise that they made to their loved ones. I knew then and I know now that the three of us lacked that fundamental commitment from my husband and their father. Imagine my twenty year old being excited that his bedroom door could finally fully close and that he has a threshold for it as well. Imagine my twenty-two year old coming home today to see the finished wood flooring and say that he is just beginning to “process” it. Like I said to both of them: “Welcome to Normal.”

I am excited to begin the next step towards completing the rebirth of my home. Within a month we will start painting the living and study area walls and ceiling. We will continue with the new color scheme throughout the front hall, stair risers all the way to the second floor. The carpet in the former areas will be ripped out to reveal beautiful maple wood floors. The big oak desk that I needed for graduate school will be donated, creating more space for us.

This home repair has definitely filled me with a sense of pride. I am glad that I can show my sons a concrete example of what it means to create a healthy loving space for friends and family (just like Emily).  I am thrilled that I created this legacy for them. I am certain that they will pass it on.

We shape our dwellings,
and afterwards, our dwellings shape us.

– Winston Churchill

Life in Ordinary Time

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Beware the barrenness of a busy life.  ~Socrates

Lately I feel especially squeezed for time. I am no different from anyone else but this time rut has me feeling stressed, resentful, fatigued and overwhelmed. My job as a literacy specialist is always, always overly busy.  Teaching is easy; it is the vast amounts of paperwork, scholarly articles that need to be read, data to track, lessons to plan, committee obligations and assessments to complete that are killing me! It is a fact that I will never catch up. I work at maintaining a balance between my personal and professional life. Most days I stay very late in order not to bring my job home. And yet, the demands of work lately have outweighed the demands of home.  Of course, it helps that my children are young adults. Still, my personal life is not only busy and fulfilling but extremely important to me. I want to spend the weekend with my fiance’ without thinking or feeling guilty about the work that I have to do.

I often wonder, though, is my generation somewhat responsible for the way we are living today?  I became a young woman in the era of  “You Can Have It All.”  Some of us bought into the myth that work, marriage, a healthy sex life, kids and maintaining our youthful looks were easily mastered. Then reality bit us in the behind!  Today there is the idea and very real fact that two incomes are necessary in order to make ends meet. But let’s get even more real: for all working class people two incomes have always been necessary to feed their families, pay bills and keep a roof over their heads. For generations, men worked two jobs (my father being one of them) or women worked a second shift in order to be home with the kids. Moreover, many families today simply cannot afford to pay for day care. At best, some break even. In fact, just a few days ago,  I ran into a complete stranger who was lamenting this very thing. Her husband is a firefighter and she works as a school counselor. They are parents to a 1 and a 4 year old. Her income goes to child care but if she doesn’t work she will lose her certification. It was quite obvious that she was in a serious dilemma: stay at her job in order not to start all over again in a few years and throw away income or stay home with the kids to save money.

And another reality for most women is that they still bear the brunt of domestic chores, grocery shopping, meal preparation and child care logistics. I know! I know!  There are a great many men who are equitable and respectful partners. But I am well aware of friends of mine who, if they don’t hire a cleaning company or have groceries delivered, are cleaning their houses at midnight. There are few of us who have high-powered, high income careers that allow for a nanny, cook and cleaning services AND flexibility- which would free us up for time with family and friends without emptying our wallets.

I was able to stay at home for ten years with my sons.  The time spent with them helped me to appreciate the simple moments in life and laid the foundation for lasting memories with them. In some ways it was a challenge to fight the new cultural norm of going back to work. But this was not what I wanted for my sons. Sure, many kids they knew were plied with material things and bigger houses and lavish vacations. But what these kids did not get was sustained attention from their parents.  How many parents do you see today walking with their kid holding onto one hand and the cell phone in the other? And believe me, they are not conversing with their child! How many vehicles today are equipped with a dvd player? How many kids when asked what they did after school or over the weekend will say: ” I played on my Wii.” Fresh air and getting dirty are at best rare occurrences and at worst foreign concepts to lots of children.

I am in no way advocating for a return to the kitchen for women.  I am too much of a feminist and a realist for that. But I do wonder in this quest for material gain that we have stolen childhood from our children. Kids no longer play but have “play dates” . (This concept still cracks me up-when I first heard it, it sounded mismatched-playing on a date?).  They have scheduled, organized activities many times per week and over the weekend.  How can our children have the time to discover who they are and their life’s passion(s) if we don’t allow them to just be and be God forbid-bored?

As I write this, I still have loads of work ahead of me for the week. Somehow I will make the penguin steps necessary to get things done. If  I chose work over family and fiance’, however,  I would have missed out on much more. My man and I enjoyed a snowstorm, a long run in its slushy aftermath, a few delicious meals and much-needed private conversation. Sunday dinner with my sons and their girlfriends was relaxing and rambunctious. My youngest son is assuming the role of cook ( he got cookbooks for his birthday) and is seriously committed to making a good meal.  I love being a tutor for him in the kitchen!  These are the things that sustain all of us. Live simply and extraordinary things can happen.

Each day, awakening, are we asked to paint the sky blue? Need we coax the sun to rise or flowers to bloom? Need we teach birds to sing, or children to laugh, or lovers to kiss? No, though we think the world imperfect, it surrounds us each day with its perfections. We are asked only to appreciate them, and to show appreciation by living in peaceful harmony amidst them. The Creator does not ask that we create a perfect world; He asks that we celebrate it.  ~Robert Brault

Seismic Shifts and Cosmic Changes

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“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
Lao Tzu

Sometimes I am often in awe of the changes that have happened in my life in the past six years. The tumult, turmoil and triumph have been terrifying and tremendous transitions. But why be reflective of the changes? Why not be consciously aware of the transformations as we move forward in our lives?

When changes are traumatic and dramatic, it is difficult to embrace the idea that your life will be different. And in reality, when hard times knock on your door, you just want to get them over with!  The good news is that major life changes-whether good or bad- don’t happen everyday-thank goodness!

Change happens constantly and most of the time we don’t notice it because it is so subtle.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons I love to run so much. My early morning routine has allowed me to notice even the smallest of things. Winter running tests your dedication-it is mostly dark and very cold and often icy. But if you move through the short period of blackness, you begin to notice the shift from dark to dawn.  One of my favorite times is when both the sun and moon hang opposite of each other in the sky.   For me, it is a sign that living a life of balance can help provide awareness of  the beauty of each day. I also think that I have greater tenacity when my ying and yang can hang together nicely.

Back in October, I wrote about transitions and the conflict  (within ourselves and between loved ones) that can sometimes arise during these times. I wonder, though, if the conflict comes about because of either a lack of communication or because of  a lack of being cognizant of the changes taking place in our lives?  Or does it show up because we don’t always control the change? Or is it all three?

I am blessed with deep friendships and loving family connections and it is through these relationships that I have come to understand that all of us are undergoing realignments in our lives.  And let’s just throw out the old cliche’ of  “mid-life crisis” as THE major life change while we are at it. My soul sister is journeying through a small multitude of refinements in her life that include navigating through her daughter’s teenage years, seeing her oldest off to college, pondering a possible change in her long time nursing career and- most recently- preparing to say goodbye to the family’s beloved dog. A long time friend and her family (who lived here all of their lives) just moved two cities away. The move is no doubt a positive moment in their life. She finally feels at home. But it is also strange. She said to me: “For so long I turned left; now I have to turn right.”

Sometimes it is hard to watch our own parents make changes in their lives as well. I had a wonderful conversation with my seventy-seven year old father this morning. It was enlightening to listen to him as he related some of the shifts he is making in his own life. I think for some of us (including myself) it is hard to imagine that our older parents would develop new relationships or lessen their involvement in life-long interests in order to pursue new things. We want them to stay the same because that is all we have known our whole life.

I suppose the same holds true for my sons. I will be getting married and moving away within the next two years. For them, mom has been the sturdy rock in their lives. This house is their “base camp.” So it is a little freaky that I will not be here most of the time! But we are working our way through this change together.  The timing is good for their ages.  It helps that they live more in the real adult world where they can practice independence.  And the goals that  they have are ones that will have them feeling safe and secure upon my departure. I have seen my sons mature more in the last six months than I have in a long while.  This is a good sign.

As for me, I am both anxious and excited during this time. It will not be easy to leave an area that I have known all my life- a place where I have embedded community connections and relationships. But a huge part of my life is now elsewhere awaiting its next phase. I am ready to embrace it!  In the meantime, I can honestly say that I am enjoying the journey to my next destination thanks to the loving support of my fiance’,  my family and  my friends.